PRINT January 1986


IN A RECENT ARTICLE in Artforum Donald Kuspit wrote, “Most abstract art has now become either corporate or academic design, and thus necessarily emptied of challenging meaning. It is often only an arch breaking of the Modernist rules which fails to fundamentally change what a long time ago became a formalist game.”1 Given such a situation, it is a rare satisfaction to encounter an art of quiet persuasion and belief, an art that proves, moreover, that abstract forms are still capable of carrying a humanistically valid meaning. These are qualities I find in the recent works of Ching Ho Cheng. Varying in format from near miniature to wall sized, the works consist of pieces of torn paper arranged in particular orders. One piece colored in blue or green pastel is usually juxtaposed with one or several others largely blacked in with charcoal but with sharp-edged or elliptical shapes also rubbed in vigorously in various layers of graphite. Sometimes color is omitted, and the drama unfolds in the interaction between the metallic graphite, the velvety charcoal, and the white ground. The fringes of the individual pieces of paper may be fitted together so tightly that the image appears as a single complex, torn and recomposed, but more often the cleavages are so wide that they disrupt any continuity of the parts. In such cases the white ground asserts its autonomy and infuses the interstices with light and energy.

The works are impeccably crafted. The pastel parts are densely textured, like vegetal tissue, while the charcoal parts suggest indefinite depth. The graphite shapes are frottages done on plaster walls, so that cracks or traces of scraper and smoother appear on their surfaces as light-absorbent reliefs. The tearing is a pass/fail act that always risks spoiling the work in progress. This seemingly simple formula is capable of infinite variation. It lends itself to intimate statements as well as to those lapidary messages usually reserved for murals. Certain works convey turmoil, others calm and serenity. Many strands of experience and thought have gone into this unusual work on paper; in order to unravel them, one has to trace the course of the artist’s development.

Cheng was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1946. In 1949, after the communist revolution in China, his father left his work for the Chinese diplomatic service and moved his family to New York, where, from 1964 to 1968, Cheng studied painting and sculpture at the Cooper Union School of Art and Architecture. His teachers were Nicholas Krushenick, Richard Anuskiewicz, and Michael Goldberg; also at this time, his reading of the Tao-te-ching, one of the principal texts of Taoism, inspired him with an ever-recurrent hankering after a perfect state of calm.2 Yet his early works, of ca. 1969 to 1972, were anything but calm.2 He had looked at Tibetan art, and at Hopi and Navajo Indian artifacts, but it was the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch that suggested to him a way for Modern art (as opposed to Tantric art) to render contemporary visions of a magical reality One must cast back one’s mind to the ’60s, so unlike the present disenchanted decade, in order to understand his joyful embracing of ultimates. The shibboleths of these fervent years—the expansion of consciousness through drugs, the attainment of liberation and unity through sex, the dream of universal brotherhood, the vision of a universe teeming with attainable stars that might be responsive to humanity—left their imprint on Cheng’s imagination.

The Astral Theater, 1972–73, offers an example of the obsessive detail and narcissistic iconography of this early phase in the artist’s development, but it also exemplifies the jewellike perfection of his technique. The work deals with the subjects of cosmic birth and individual rebirth, expressed through the age-old symbol of the metamorphosis of the butterfly The creature is born as a caterpillar in the work’s outer perimeter (which occupies its larger part); its sleep in the cocoon is depicted inside an arched frame; the butterfly’s final flight into the sky appears in the inner image enclosed by the frame. This inner image combines the butterfly symbol with a Taoist legend about the illusory nature of dream and reality. A bizarre figure at the lower margin of the inner image stands for the sage Chuang Tzu, who in the legend dreams he is a butterfly He enjoys his happy flight from flower to flower, but upon awakening cannot decide whether he is a man who has dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he is a man. The figure of Chuang Tzu became for Cheng what the manichino (mannequin) was for Giorgio de Chirico, or what the shy myopic scholar was for Paul Delvaux: the anonymous protagonist in a metaphysical play about the search for the self. The image of the sage derives from a photograph in an obscure book, George Burchett’s Memoirs of a Tattooist (1958), which concerns a British officer who gave up his commission to become a tattooed man in a circus; as such he was exhibited all over Britain. Cheng found the symmetrical markings on his face similar not only to certain butterflies, but to the masks in Chinese opera, and perhaps took the orb of light on his forehead as a sign of illumination, an allusion to the “third eye” that in Vedantic literature symbolizes spiritual awakening.

The subject matter of Cheng’s early works is bound up with his own personal adventures and with the times in which they were made, yet in order to come into his own he had to abandon first narrative and then any direct reference to visible reality. At one point in the early ’70s Cheng said, “I have had all my explosions. Now I am concerned with the subtlety of expression.” This process of gradual purification extended over the years from 1973 to 1982, and he began it by limiting his subject matter, while remaining true to his habit of working exclusively with paper. (“Paper breathes. So, I prefer to say that I work with paper. At one time, a sheet of paper yielded to the visions emerging from my mind. In these new paintings, I yield to the paper.”) What was new was Cheng’s use of the airbrush. Related to traditional Chinese painting to the extent that it does not allow for any corrections, the airbrush technique is invaluable in creating the subtle gradations within a single tonality that are necessary to render non-naturalistic light—for several years, one of Cheng’s foremost concerns. Light permeates some of his most beautiful works of 1974 to 1976, the “Wood-grain” series. Cheng has said, “I travel through the wood grains of my floor boards. They are lofty mountains and calm lapping waters of a lake. Sometimes, they are the drifting sands of the desert?’ This description is evocative of Chinese landscape painting, and so are the formats of some of the works. The viewer can become lost in these images of wood grain, which correspond to the stratification of rocks as the geological formations in a Chinese landscape painting correspond to the harmonious functioning of the human body, both echoing the rhythm of the universe. However, these works represent the last time so far (and probably forever) that Cheng’s Chinese origin has reflected itself in his painting. ”I rebel against tradition . . . I have always been an outsider in the Chinese community," Cheng feels. By the same token, the eyes that sometimes materialize out of the knots in the wood grain are the last vestiges of Surrealism in Cheng’s pictorial language.

If Surrealism has gone, however, the magic experience of things has remained a concern. Cheng has summarized his work from 1975 to 1980 as follows: “For the past five years, I have been painting ordinary subject matter familiar to all: cigarette butts, matches, a squashed beer can, coat hangers, a shower sprocket, an old chipped enamel bowl, a naked light bulb dangling from the ceiling. . . . What I have tried to communicate here is [akin to what] an aborigine may manifest when, for the first time, he chances upon an old beer tab top. Prized for its singularity, he binds it into a talisman. This precious bead takes on new significance both as a purifier and a protector against evil spirits. . . . In the peeling, crumbling, cracked walls of my studio, there is a lunar landscape. . . . In my work-room, squinting at the naked light bulb in its blinding incandescence, I find it encircled by a double-ringed aura. A lit match flickering brightly in a dark room suddenly becomes the Burning Bush”3 The sensibility expressed in these remarks led inevitably to a concentration on immateriality. In 1981 Cheng painted a series of “Palmetto Silhouettes” (or shadows) cast on gray walls. Were it not for a few cracked and peeling areas, painted in the best trompe-l’oeil manner, these shadows would be ghosts floating in a nonspace. In successive panels of a triptych of the same year Cheng followed the trace of the setting sun across the intersection between two bare walls, as day turned into night. This motif was the starting point for his first completely abstract works, the so-called “Shadow Boxes,” 1981–83. Framed in a shallow box or case, they are evocations of sheer immateriality, white on white. Yet they are endowed with peculiar luminosity: the less paint is applied to the paper, the more the paper absorbs the real light in the room. The shadows cast by the walls of the case, even the reflections on the Plexiglass cover, interact with the airbrushed paint, creating a parallel between the illusion within, created by the painter, and the play of real light without. Thus reality and illusion are harmonized and become indistinguishable. In his “Shadow Boxes” Cheng attained for the first time the “perfect state of calm” that his reading of the Tao-te-ching had led him to desire.

Cheng has always had a passion for ancient ruins, tablets, tombs, steles, and stone codices and calendars. In the fall of 1981 he had, for the first time, an opportunity to study them firsthand, when he spent several weeks journeying in Turkey by foot, bus, and boat, exploring both the Turkish Aegean and the mountainous interior. On his return his memories of stone slabs, archaeological shards, and remnants of buildings transformed themselves into nondescriptive, hard-edged shapes upon soft, speckled foils drawn in graphite over charcoal. In this form the impressions Cheng received on the Turkish excavation sites are still present in his recent works. Then an accident provided him with a revelation. Dissatisfied with a drawing, he tore it apart—and encountered the same shock of recognition that Jean Am experienced in 1930 on discovering that some of his meticulously crafted early collages had completely decomposed under the influence of damp, cold, and heat. Arp “accepted the transience, the dribbling away, the brevity, the impermanence, the fading, the withering, the spookishness of our existence,’’ and so he discarded the paper-cutter and started tearing off the raw material of his collages, no longer concerned to maintain a tidy appearance. Now he found that ”the essence of life and dissolution are drawn into the picture by the tearing of the paper or drawing.“5 In accordance with his divinatory philosophy Arp concluded that ”the ’chance’ that, for example, guides our hands when we rip up a piece of paper—plus the resulting forms—often discloses the secrets of the profound laws of life"6

Cheng would subscribe to this, even if he tears his papers (usually before applying the pastel, charcoal, and graphite) in a very different manner from Arp. The difference is one of dimension as well as of expression. Arp’s small-sized torn-paper collages are composed of a multitude of individual pieces, indissolubly tied to the two-dimensional plane. Cheng’s tears cut across the whole composition (which is generally large), creating wide clefts and activating the white backing paper so that the parts break out from the confines of their perimeters and interact with exterior space. He describes the tear as “a moment in time which reflects that spontaneous gesture which can never be exactly duplicated. Like lightning, it never strikes in the same place twice. Tearing paper is like savage love-making?’ Cheng stresses emphatically that his works are not collages. The blue that usually covers one of the papers is the color of infinity of the spirit—not of the sky (it almost invariably appears at the bottom of the works, or is oriented vertically). So landscape associations do not come up. Nevertheless, the interstices between the torn edges can suggest geological phenomena such as crevasses or rift valleys; occasionally, the individual pieces of paper may appear as drift ice, or as bits of continents cut off by, earth movements or erosion. The darkest and most impassioned works convey a feeling of what Gottfried Benn called ”the great dissonance as the law of the universe." Yet others are wonderfully calm, and their springlike green evokes regenerative processes.

In addition, a number of torn-paper works are inspired by the common image of unidentified flying objects, and form a class by themselves. Never-quiteverified “things seen in the skies.”7 have triggered a flood of pseudoscientific speculation, atavistic fear, and hope, which all reflect a malaise of our time—a collective fear of death, or a yearning for the advent of mysterious gods or benevolent extraterrestrials who would bring order into our chaos. C. G. Jung interpreted the roundness of the UFOs as analogous to the circular mandala, which, in his view, signifies the desire for wholeness, for the realization of the self—a very different image from the bladelike craft of Star Wars. Cheng derives his most striking pictorial effects in these depictions of UFOs, which are either recomposed out of several torn pieces or split by a deep chasm. The shining disk is always shown in a downward slide; the splits and tears by no means impair its suggestion of flight. The contradiction between a coherent moving body and its disintegration, and the simultaneity of broken and integral form, imbue these works with an unusual tension. If one accepts Jung’s interpretation, the message of these images can only be that in the present state of the world, “wholeness” cannot be attained. But these new and entirely personal works of Cheng’s convey an undecided state between destruction and hope. As he himself puts it, “when these torn paper works excite me, it is because I have pushed them to the edge of the precipice; but they manage to strike a delicate balance there.” To distill beauty out of the raggedness of our time is no minor achievement; this is the humanism of Ching Ho Cheng.

Gert Schiff is a professor of fine arts at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. He recently curated “Picasso at Work at Home” for the Center for Fine Arts in Miami.



1. Donald Kuspit, “Back to the Future,” Artforum vol. 24 no. 1, September 1985, p 87.

2. See David Rattray, “Het psychorealisme van Ching Ho Cheng,” Bres 61, the Hague, November–December 1976 (illustrated).

3. Statement published in the Everson Museum of Art Bulletin in connection with Cheng’s exhibition at the Museum, June–September 14,1980 (Syracuse, NY.: Everson Museum of Art, June 1980).

4. Jean Hans Arp. “Looking,” in James Thrall Soby and others, Arp (New York: the Museum of Modern Art, 1958), p. 15. I am grateful to Gail Stavitsky for providing me with these quotes.

5. Jean Arp, Signposts in Herbert Read, The Art of Jean Arp (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1968), p. 142.

6. Jean Arp, “Signposts (II),” in Marcel Jean, ed. Arp on Arp, translated by Joachim Neugroschel (New York: Viking, 1972), p. 326.

7. See C. G. Jung, Flying Saucer: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies, trans. RFC. Hull, 1959. Reprinted in Collected Works of Carl C. Jung, vol. 18 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976).